By Angela L. Braden
Nicknamed Blind Tom by his “handlers”, Thomas Wiggins made history by being the first African American man to perform at the White House.
Born May 25, 1849, Thomas was birthed into the harsh, dreadful institution of American slavery in the state of Georgia. Adding insult to injury, the young child of Charity and Mingo Wiggins was also born blind and autistic.
Disability of a slave presented itself as a major inconvenience to slave owners, being that the owners often could not exploit and benefit from the physical abilities of the disabled slave. However, Thomas’ owner would quickly learn that their little blind boy had the ability to help them earn millions off of what many consider to be the talent that God gave to Thomas.
At the age of five, Thomas overheard his slave owner’s daughter taking piano lessons. After the lessons were complete, Thomas immolated the piece that the girl was trying to learn almost perfectly. This is when Thomas’ owner, General James Neil Bethune, first heard his little blind slave demonstrating an amazing knack for the piano.
Realizing that Thomas possessed an incredible gift, he allowed Thomas to have open access to the piano. Soon, Thomas was perfectly regurgitating classical piano compositions and even composing original pieces of his own.
Historians say that the young boy was playing the piano twelve hours of each day, composing and recording dozens of complex piano works of art.
While Thomas was an obvious musical prodigy, who could perfectly imitate nature sounds and recall up to ten minutes of conversation verbatim, Thomas was not able to develop and maintain social relationships. His autism made it difficult for the blind boy to communicate his emotions and needs. Those that were close to Thomas said that he would often refer to himself in the third person, saying “Thomas is glad to meet you.”
Thomas’ “unusual behavior” was also present when the musical prodigy was interacting with “music.” Thomas was known to listen to a complex musical composition one time. Then he would get up from the piano seat and run and bump his head into the wall. Then he would return to the piano and play the song without missing a note.
In addition, Thomas was able to play a song with his left hand, a different song with his right hand, and sing a totally different song: all at the same time!
Because Thomas was a slave, and unable to care for himself because of his disability, Thomas’ owner took full advantage of the opportunity to exploit and control Thomas’ musical gift. At the age of eight-years-old, he hired out Thomas to concert promoter Perry Oliver, who took the young boy on the road all over the country.
Thomas was marketed by Oliver as s “Blind Tom.” Oliver likened Thomas to a circus act, pointing out that Thomas was a “freak.” Some of the advertisements read, “From animal to artist.” Oliver also referred to Thomas as a baboon, monkey, and gorilla.
The two men, the slave owner and the concert performer, earned upwards of $100,000 a year, which is the equivalent of $1.5 million in today’s society. Thomas earned not one red cent from his handlers.
In 1860, Thomas made history when he was invited by President James Buchanan to play at the White house. He is recorded as being the first African American to give a “command performance” at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a sitting president.
Even though slavery ended in 1865, Thomas continued to be exploited by his former slave owner for ten years post emancipation. In 1875, Bethune transferred managerial duties to his son, extending the many benefits that the family had by being the “caregiver” and manger of such a wildly successful musical performer. He remained was in the custody of members of that family until the end of his musical career in 1904. Five years after ending his career, he died, still under the control of his “masters.”
Historians feel that Thomas Wiggins is one of the country’s most important musical artists. However, because Thomas was African American, a slave, and disabled, his musical contributions are often ignored and minimized by mainstream historians.
In 2009, Overlook Press published a full-length biography, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist, by Deirdre O’Connell. In 2013, a documentary was released about Thomas, entitled “The Last Legal Slave in America.”